If you think you saw Justin Rhodes perform in Western New York well before he became a singing sensation on “America’s Got Talent” but the name doesn’t ring a bell, you just might be right.
Rhodes isn’t his real name.
“Rhodes is the name of the keyboard he played on,” explained Maureen Reilly, his choral director at Williamsville East High School.
She added that he went by the name Justin Michael when he played lounge music at Rizzo’s and Banchetti’s in Amherst after graduating from high school.
And she said his real name is Justin Bartkowski. A 2007 story in The Buffalo News noted that he was a keyboardist and vocalist on a band called Northern Trends.
“He was a fantastic musician,” said Reilly. “He could hear something on the radio and sit down on the piano and start playing it. He played most everything by ear. He is a great kid. Everyone loved him.”
Rhodes wowed Heidi Klum, Mel B, Howard Stern and Howie Mandel during his Tuesday appearance when he performed “Wake Me Up” and moved on to the next round on the competition show. The performance can be viewed on YouTube with the title “Singer’s Avicii Cover Moves His Dad to Tears.” It had more than 185,000 hits as of Monday.
Indeed, Klum called him “very special,” and Mel B said he was “sexy.”
And what did Reilly think of Justin’s performance of “Wake Me Up” last Tuesday?
“I thought he was wonderful,” she said. “He’s very charming, and I think the judges picked up on that, especially Heidi (Klum) and Mel B.”
Reilly said Rhodes first appeared on stage in a high school production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“He was the Beast at East,” she said.
She added that Justin’s father, Gene, who was seen crying as he watched his son perform on the show, continues to give her credit for getting his son on stage.
“He got his initial love to perform here,” said Reilly.
She has kept in touch with Justin since he left high school. He went to Cortland State to become a physical education teacher, but that didn’t work out. “He missed the music too much,” she said.
He then went on to New York City and Florida to perform.
He worked with Tom Sartori, the local musician who was part of the house band on “The Singing Bee.” But judging by negative comments attributed to Sartori on Facebook after Rhodes’ appearance, the musical relationship didn’t end well.
Before Rhodes sang last Tuesday, he explained that he got into some bad things when he moved to New York to start his singing career and now wants to prove his worth to his father. Rhodes, who now lives in Tampa, Fla., didn’t disappoint.
NBC reports that Rhodes’ next appearance will be during “Judgment Week” July 22 and 23.